A woman rides her electric bike without a helmet in Beijing. Photo by Ethnocentrics.
On the Streets of China, Electric Bikes Are Swarming
June 14, 2009
By Austin Ramzy
In China, electric bicycles are leaving cars in the dust. Last year, Chinese bought 21 million e-bikes, compared with 9.4 million autos. While China now has about 25 million cars on the road, it has four times as many e-bikes. [Compare these staggering figures to more modest numbers from the United States, where more bicycles (2.6 million) were sold than cars and trucks (2.5 million) during the first quarter of 2009.] Thanks to government encouragement and a population well versed in riding two wheels to work, the country has become the world’s leading market for the cheap, green vehicles, helping to offset some of the harmful effects of the country’s automobile boom. Indeed, as engineers around the world scramble to create eco-friendly, plug-in electric cars, China is already ahead of the game.
But is the popularity of the e-bike in the world’s most populous country necessarily a good thing?
The TIME article highlights the benefits of the phenomenon:
- “Major Chinese cities have extensive bicycle lanes, which means riders can avoid the worst of rush-hour congestion.”
- One man says: “E-bikes are actually much safer than motorcycles, and better for the environment” and “their price…is also more acceptable”
- Another explains it this way: “Motorcycles are too dangerous, cars are too expensive, public transportation is too crowded and pedal bikes leave you too tired. So people buy e-bikes.”
The one limiting factor mentioned in the article is lead-acid batteries, a “cheap century-old technology unsuitable for the growing demands of daily commuting.”
BUT WHAT ARE SOME OF THE HARMFUL CONSEQUENCES?
Christopher Cherry, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation (nearly 200 pages long!) on quantifying the impacts of electric bikes in China. His research found some of the following results:
Improved speed and mobility
Electric bikes travel about 35 percent faster than bicycles and have a much larger range. In the city of Kunming, an electric bike can access 60 percent more jobs within 20 minutes than a traditional bicycle. Compared to a 30-40 minute bus ride, an electric bike rider can access three to six times the number of jobs.
Toxic lead pollution
Each battery represents 30-40 percent of its lead content emitted to the environment in the production processes, resulting in about 3 kilograms of lead emitted per battery produced. When scaled up the 40 million electric bikes currently on the roads, this is an astonishing amount of lead emitted into the environment.
(Cherry also examines other factors, like economics, local air pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, safety, accessibility and cost-effectiveness.)
SO WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
It comes down to “mode shift,” or moving away from one form of transportation to another. Cherry says, “Ultimately, the success or failure of electric bikes as a sustainable mode of transportation should be evaluated in the context of the extent to which they displace automobiles.”
As China motorizes, will electric bikes displace would-be car users or simply provide a stepping stone to full blown auto ownership? They will likely lead to both outcomes. To the extent that electric bike battery technology and production processes improve, electric bikes provide some of the highest mobility and access to an urban area with some of the lowest negative impacts to the transportation system or the environment.